Gluten-Free Halloween Hacks

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Insider tips from food-allergy moms.

Are you haunted by thoughts of Halloween and trick-or-treat? This candy-saturated holiday can spook anyone who has a child with food allergies or celiac disease. There’s no perfect recipe for eliminating all risks but reasonable caution coupled with good information and proper preparation can make this holiday a lot less scary. We asked some seasoned and savvy food-allergy moms for their advice.

1. Adopt a Can-Do Attitude About Trick-or-Treating with Food Allergies

“My philosophy has always been it’s not “if” but “how” we do something,” says Gina Clowes, senior director of communications at the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE). The mother of a son with multiple food allergies, Clowes says she was “extremely fearful” when her son was little but she didn’t want to parent him based on her fear. A Halloween-related incident in her son’s kindergarten class tested her resolve. The little boy was given candy and had an anaphylactic reaction. “I remember looking into his eyes as we road in the back of the ambulance and thinking, this is not the life I imagined for you,” she says. They returned home from the hospital with trick or treat just a few days away. “I wanted to keep him home in the worst way but I let him go. I watched over him. We were extremely careful. He had gone the year before and I thought we could do it safely and we did.” Her advice: Be cautious but don’t let fear win.

2. Know Your Child

When Jennifer Ward’s daughter Catherine was a little, her dairy allergy was so severe that she broke out in hives just from skin contact. “Catherine’s costume historically involved gloves of some kind to protect her from allergen exposure when she went house to house,” says Ward, who lives in western Missouri.

Clowes’ son has never worn gloves while trick or treating. “Everyone is different. There are different levels of allergy severity and sensitivity,” Clowes says. “You have to look at your child’s allergies and beyond that. Consider his or her personality and history of behavior. Are there developmental issues, maturity issues, ADHD? Things like that may play a role in what’s possible and what’s risky.”

3. Educate Your Kids Early

What’s safe for some children isn’t necessarily safe for your child. Clowes recommends teaching this concept as soon as it seems practical. “Start to train your child even at 2 and 3 years of age,” she says. “Is this safe for you or not?” This know-how is particularly important when faced with trick-or treat loot. “Preschoolers can look at all that candy and have a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ pile,” she says.

4. Be Smart About Candy Ingredients

Even some top-8-free candy, like Skittles, Smarties and Dum Dums, may contain different ingredients in different sizes at different times of the year. “Whether it’s Christmas, Valentine’s Day or Halloween—for whatever reason—manufacturers may vary ingredients or items can be packaged in unexpected ways. You absolutely cannot say, ‘this candy is safe for my child,’ without reading the label each time,” Clowes warns.

Many stores sells large packages of bite-sized mixed candies at Halloween. “You dump them into a bowl and one or two can get unwrapped, exposing kids to potential cross contamination,” she says.

The ingredients in some types of candy may surprise you. Jelly beans can contain peanuts or nuts. Lollipops may contain eggs. Dark chocolate may contain dairy. Licorice contains gluten (wheat flour).

“When it comes to candy ingredients, you can’t guess. You can’t assume. You can’t use common sense,” says Clowes. “You have to be really careful.”

5. Focus on Activities Rather Than Food

Halloween doesn’t have to revolve around candy or food. Throw a Halloween-themed party, organize crafts, a scavenger hunt or a spooky movie night.

“A lot of moms who work with FARE are creative with fun activities and non-edible treats. Some do trunk-or-treat. They decorate the trunks of their cars and have mini trick-or-treating where everything is safe and the kids are among friends who understand,” Clowes says.

6. Choose Strategies That Grow With Your Child

There are a number of ways that parents can approach trick-or-treat. The tactics are dynamic, changing as your child grows. When her son was little, Clowes was a big fan of bait-and-switch. “We had two identical plastic pumpkins. We’d go out with him to trick-or-treat using one. When he got home, we’d swap the candy pumpkin for a pumpkin with trinkets and a few safe treats.”

As her son grew a little older, Clowes made arrangements with trusted neighbors to give the boy safe treats that she supplied. Her strategy continued to grow with him.

“We did a variety of things over the years. It went from bait-and-switch to trading. I’d buy a monster truck or an action figure in advance and he’d trade his candy for that,” she says. “When he was older, he’d get a video game. By the end of his trick-or-treating—when he was 12 or 13—it was all about cash.”

About a third of kids with food allergies have multiple allergies. That means there are a lot of candies they cannot eat. The Teal Pumpkin Project, an awareness-raising strategy introduced by FARE, promotes inclusion at Halloween. Families place a teal pumpkin on their front stoop to announce they’re giving out non-candy trinkets so that children with food allergies can safely trick-or-treat there.

“It’s not about don’t-give-out-candy. It’s about providing choices,” says Clowes. One year, she handed out giant whistles, along with safe candy. “Those whistles cost 10 cents each. The neighborhood kids loved them, even the older kids,” she says.

Neither Clowes nor Ward wanted their kids to eat a lot of candy. Clowes’ son donated his loot to different community groups. Ward’s daughter would trick-or-treat and then “recycle” her candy in a bin for the kids who came to her home later.

“For the past three years, we’ve handed out glow rings and Catherine’s collected candy in separate bins,” Ward says. “All the kids love the rings. They sparkle in brilliant colors and it helps the parents see the kids while they’re trick-or-treating. As the only home, so far, in our neighborhood that hands out non-candy items, people remember us and say thanks as they pass by on their way back home. It’s a fun experience!”

Tell Me More About Staying Safe on Halloween

Visit KidsWithFoodAllergies.org to download a pdf that contains tips for celebrating Halloween at home and in school, as well as a trick-or-treat checklist and examples of non-food treats. Kids with Food Allergies, a division of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, is an online support group that provides information for families with food allergies.

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